Xerse: Francesco Cavalli (1654)

Cavalli: Xerse

★★★★

(Ensemble OrQuesta at Grimeborn, Arcola Theatre, 24 August 2018)

Would you believe it? I haven’t seen a single production of Xerxes for almost two years! It’s a wonder I haven’t had withdrawal symptoms. Unsurprisingly, I leaped at the chance to see Cavalli’s version of this fabulous story performed by Ensemble OrQuesta, as part of this year’s Grimeborn festival. Unlike most of the audience, I suspect, I’d actually seen Cavalli’s rare opera before, in a superb semi-staged performance in Vienna back in 2015, and so the bar was high. But it turned out that the OrQuesta show was actually a fascinating complement, not a rival, to the Vienna production, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. Very simply staged, with costumes in sombre shades of black, and with a stunning silver-wire tree as the only prop, it was a pared-down, effective performance of a seldom-seen opera – and a welcome introduction to some exciting young singers.

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Xerxes: George Frideric Handel (1738)

Anna Stéphany

★★★★ ½

(Early Opera Company at St John’s Smith Square, 18 November 2016)

With only one production so far this year, I’ve had Xerxes withdrawal symptoms, but fortunately the Early Opera Company and Christian Curnyn were there to save the day with a concert performance at St John’s Smith Square last Friday. This was billed as a concert version of their truly excellent studio recording from 2013, but in fact the entire cast is different, with one crucial exception: Anna Stéphany as the brat-prince himself. The change of cast didn’t matter, however, as EOC drafted in some of the brightest young things around, and the result was classy, perfectly-paced and probably (on balance) the best-sounding Xerxes I’ve yet heard live. Coming from me, that’s high praise.

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Xerxes: George Frideric Handel (1738)

Handel: Xerxes

★★★★

(English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire, 8 October 2016)

Xerxes and Spitfires both rank pretty highly on the list of things I get excited about, but I never imagined I’d have cause to refer to them both in the same sentence. Now that has all changed, thanks to English Touring Opera’s revival production, which transplants our favourite brat-prince to the airfields of the Battle of Britain. It opens with the glorious sight of our misguided king serenading a Spitfire (plane tree – plane – Spitfire – brilliant), as he contemplates his new campaign to rule the skies of Europe, and it’s sheer fun from there on in.

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Xerse: Francesco Cavalli (1654)

Cavalli: Xerse

★★★★★

(Theater an der Wien, 18 October 2015)

Before Handel and before Bononcini there was Cavalli. This first take on the Xerxes story doesn’t enjoy anywhere near as much fame as its younger cousin, and to my knowledge has only been recorded once, in 1985, with the title role set for countertenor and sung by René Jacobs. It’s high time for another recording and, if Emmanuelle Haïm and her excellent cast could have their arms twisted to do it, we’d be in for a treat.

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Xerxes: George Frideric Handel (1738)

Handel: Xerxes

½

(Oper am Rhein, Düsseldorf, 2 May 2015)

When my friends joined me at the interval of Oper am Rhein’s Xerxes, they found me clutching my prosecco glass with a slightly wild look in my eyes. “I haven’t the faintest idea what’s going on!” I whimpered. Since I’d spent three hours watching another production of Xerxes only two days beforehand, this might sound surprising; but Stefan Herheim’s interpretation of Handel’s opera is an entirely different beast from Hampstead Garden Opera’s offering. Anarchic, exuberant and splendidly insane, this was more Carry On than Covent Garden.

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Xerxes: George Frideric Handel (1738)

Handel: Xerxes

★★★½

(Hampstead Garden Opera at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, 30 April 2015)

Those who follow me on Twitter will be aware of my Xerxes Project. As I’ve booked to see three live productions of Handel’s Xerxes this year, each of which promises to have its own very distinct flavour, I thought I’d make a theme of it. (I’m also doing some broader historical reading on Achaemenid Persia, so I’ve been examining our favourite brat-prince from several different perspectives.) I kicked things off in style this last weekend by taking in two productions, in two countries, in two languages, in three days. Things got underway in Highgate on Thursday, where Hampstead Garden Opera was holding court at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, one of London’s leading pub-theatres.

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Xerxes: George Frideric Handel (1738)

Xerxes: Handel

★★★★

(Les Talens Lyriques, with Christophe Rousset, Dresden, 2000)

You might remember that Xerxes at the ENO was the first opera I saw after the Baroque revelations of the summer and, although there was much to enjoy in that production, I itched to hear it performed in the original Italian. There isn’t a huge amount of choice on DVD at the moment so I ended up with this 2000 performance from Dresden. I held off watching it for a while, as it had an entirely female cast of principals and a visual aesthetic which looked bleak, to say the least. Then, one day I happened to see a clip of the opening scene on YouTube. Paula Rasmussen’s Ombra mai fù stopped me in my tracks.

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Xerxes: George Frideric Handel (1738)

Handel: Xerxes

★★★★

(English National Opera with Michael Hofstetter, until 3 October 2014)

This was all rather spontaneous. Having heard good things about the ENO’s current production of Handel’s Xerxes, I managed to get a last-minute ticket up in the balcony for Friday night and headed off for my inaugural Handel opera. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting it to be like. It was lyrical rather than bombastic; humorous rather than noble; and full of the kind of bubbly wit that made it feel disconcertingly like The Marriage of Figaro. I knew virtually none of the music: the only aria I had to hand on my tablet was Se bramate d’amar vi chi sdegna from Cencic’s Handel album. It turned out of course that I knew another aria as well: it was a bit of a surprise when the opera opened with Ombra mai fù. (No, I didn’t know it was sung to a plane tree either: you learn something every day.)

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